In honor of Black History Month, the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center is featuring Matthew A. Henson, the famous African American Arctic explorer, on its February button of the month.
Matthew Henson was born in Maryland in 1866. At the age of twelve he went to sea as a cabin boy on the Katie Hines and sailed throughout the world. In 1887 he took a job with Robert E. Peary, a Bowdoin College graduate, on a surveying expedition to Nicaragua. Peary later switched his focus to the Arctic and included Henson on all but his first northern expedition.
Henson was a member of seven Arctic expeditions, some multiple years in duration. He was an expert dog sledge driver and an accomplished carpenter. He learned to speak to the Inuit of Northwest Greenland in their native language, integrated into their culture, and married an Inuit woman. After his first Inuit wife died, he married another Inuit woman and fathered a son. Their descendants live in Greenland.
Henson was the only American Peary chose to accompany him and four Inuit to the North Pole on the successful 1909 sledge journey. While Peary and other white expedition members who had assisted in the effort were showered with honors after returning from the Arctic, because of his race, Matthew Henson was excluded from the celebrations and denied the recognition he deserved. This was despite Peary stressing that he chose Henson to be a member of his North Pole team because of Henson’s extraordinary skills, stating “I could not get along without him.”
Later in his life Matthew Henson received some of the recognition that had been denied him. Howard University and Morgan College awarded him honorary degrees, he was invited to join the Explorers Club, and President Eisenhower honored him in a ceremony at the White House. He was awarded additional honors posthumously.
Buttons in the button-of-the-month program are free. To pick up a button, visit the Arctic Museum and take the opportunity to watch rare footage of Henson, at the age of eighty-five, being interviewed about his North Pole accomplishment.
The museum is located on the first floor of Hubbard Hall on the Bowdoin College campus. It is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 AM – 5 PM and Sunday, 2 PM – 5 PM. Closed Mondays and national holidays. Admission is free. For more information visit our website at http://www.bowdoin.edu/arctic-museum or call 207-725-3416.